Be the First Penguin
“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted” is an expression Pausch learned while on sabbatical at Electronic Arts, a company which creates video games. It is a phrase that he remembers long after his time at the company and he uses regularly with his students. It reflects a life lesson which needs to be considered at every brick wall and disappointment people encounter: it is a reminder that failure is not only acceptable but is often essential to growth and improvement.
When he teaches his “Building Virtual Worlds” course, Pausch encourages his students to attempt difficult things without worrying about failing. He wants to find a way to reward that kind of thinking, so at the end of each semester he presents one team of students with a stuffed penguin. It is called “The First Penguin Award,” and he gives it to the team which took the biggest risk in trying new technology or new ideas but failed to achieve their goals. It is a reward for “glorious failure,” and it celebrates imaginative and creative thinking. Pausch used to call it “The Best Failure Award,” but it just had too many connotations. Once he changes the name, everyone comes to see these “winners” as losers who have a whole lot of potential to succeed.
The title of the award comes from an observation about penguins. When a group of penguins is gathered near the edge of water that might contain predators, one of the creatures has to go first. Somebody has to be the first penguin.
Pausch reassures his students that in the entertainment industry, hundreds and hundreds of projects fail. If someone is building a house and something goes wrong, it can generally still be lived in; if someone creates a video game there is no guarantee it will make it through research and development. Even worse, it may be released to the public and no one wants to play it. Video-gamers who have experienced success are, indeed, valued; however, those who have failed often have the same value—and sometimes even more.
Young businesses and start-up companies will often hire a chief executive officer who has had a failed start-up in his past because the person who has failed generally knows how to avoid failure in the future. If a person only knows success, he is more likely to be oblivious to the dangers and pitfalls that can lead to failure. While it is true that experience is often gained by getting something undesirable, experience is also one of the most valuable things one might have to offer.